52 Nige­rian who com­posed hymns from a lep­rosy colony

Weekly Trust - - News - Adaobi Tri­cia Nwaubani Cured, but still in the colony Aura of hope ‘We can’t present lep­ers to the world’ BBC

Nige­ria’s most fa­mous vic­tim of lep­rosy was fa­tally in­jured in a mo­tor ac­ci­dent 40 years ago, and a cer­e­mony is be­ing held to mark the an­niver­sary of the mu­sic com­poser’s death.

Born in 1905, Ikoli Har­court Whyte was di­ag­nosed with lep­rosy as a teenager, at a time when there was no ef­fec­tive cure for the dreaded dis­ease which usu­ally leads to de­for­mity of the hands and feet.

Peo­ple suf­fer­ing from lep­rosy were of­ten iso­lated or driven away from their com­mu­ni­ties. Whyte chan­nelled his ex­pe­ri­ence of suf­fer­ing and stig­ma­ti­sa­tion into mu­sic, and went on to com­pose more than 200 in­spi­ra­tional hymns.

“He wrote with the stubs of his thumb and in­dex fin­ger,” said 77-year-old Achinivu Kanu Achinivu, a pro­fes­sor of mu­sic who was a friend and pro­tégé of Whyte.

“He wrote very slowly. It took him a whole day or more to write one page of mu­sic.”

Whyte’s tal­ent for mu­sic was de­vel­oped at the Uzuakoli Lep­rosy Cen­tre in what is now Abia State in south-eastern Nige­ria, where he spent the last 45 years of his life.

Be­fore then, he had been re­ceiv­ing treat­ment at a hospi­tal in Port Har­court, cap­i­tal city of his home state of Rivers in the Niger Delta, which had a thriv­ing lep­rosy ward.

When res­i­dents of Port Har­court, known as the Gar­den City, ag­i­tated for the re­moval of peo­ple with lep­rosy in their midst, Whyte led the other pa­tients to re­sist at­tempts by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties to evac­u­ate them force­fully, in­sist­ing that they be pro­vided with an al­ter­na­tive lo­ca­tion in­stead.

His per­sis­tent ac­tivism partly led to the in­ter­ven­tion of Methodist mis­sion­ar­ies, who then es­tab­lished the Uzuakoli Lep­rosy Cen­tre in 1932, with Whyte and his fel­low pa­tients as some of the first set of in­mates.

“The work at Uzuakoli was hugely sig­nif­i­cant,” said John Man­ton, Ir­ish his­to­rian and an­thro­pol­o­gist of medicine.

Im­age copy­right John Man­ton Im­age cap­tion Ikoli Har­court Whyte’s CDs are on sale in Nige­ria

“It was the place where the dosage of dap­sone for treat­ing of lep­rosy was stan­dard­ised in the early 1950s, and the first clin­i­cal tri­als of clo­faz­imine took place there in the early 1960s - th­ese are two of the drugs that are used as part of multi-drug ther­apy for lep­rosy to­day.”

It was also in Uzuakoli that Whyte met Bri­tish mis­sion­ary and med­i­cal doc­tor, Thomas Frank Davey, a mu­sic lover and a pi­anist - an as­so­ci­a­tion that be­came the cat­a­lyst for his mu­sic ca­reer.

“Dr Davey taught him ev­ery­thing he knew about mu­sic, that he ac­quired by study­ing the Methodist hymn book,” said Mr Achinivu.

Dur­ing trips to sur­round­ing and re­mote vil­lages to treat lep­rosy pa­tients, Dr Davey recorded the tra­di­tional mu­sic of the peo­ple.

He then en­cour­aged Whyte to de­velop his own per­sonal style by lis­ten­ing to and com­pos­ing songs that sounded more like those tunes, rather than the ones in the Methodist hymn book.

Even af­ter Whyte was even­tu­ally de­clared cured of lep­rosy in 1949, he chose to re­main at the Uzuakoli cen­tre, where he formed a choir made up of other pa­tients.

His first wife, who also had lep­rosy, had aban­doned him there a few years ear­lier af­ter she was cured, leav­ing him with their two chil­dren.

Soon, books of Whyte’s hymns were be­ing sold in dif­fer­ent churches across the re­gion, and choirs from around Nige­ria were vis­it­ing the lep­rosy cen­tre to lis­ten to and learn from him.

Tales abound of the reach and im­pact of his mu­sic, most of which was writ­ten in his lo­cal Igbo lan­guage and fo­cused on hope in spite of tri­als and tribu­la­tions.

“In the evenings, peo­ple from all walks of life came and he would teach them the mu­sic which God had shown him in dreams,” said Enyeama Oko­roafor. Now in his 70s, Mr Oko­roafor is cur­rently the old­est res­i­dent at the Uzuakoli cen­tre, hav­ing been di­ag­nosed with lep­rosy as a child and aban­doned by his fam­ily.

Im­age copy­right John Man­ton Im­age cap­tion Whyte’s grave lies at the Uzuakoli Chapel of Hope

“At the time, be­cause of his fame, we re­garded him as the most se­nior per­son here and gave him that honour and re­spect. Be­cause of what he was do­ing, he moved with many im­por­tant men.”

The de­ci­sion to change the name of the chapel at the lep­rosy cen­tre from Colony Chapel to Chapel of Hope was in­spired by the aura that per­vaded the hall when­ever Whyte and the choir ren­dered his mu­sic.

“He didn’t want in­stru­ments with his mu­sic so that they wouldn’t over­shadow the mes­sage,” said 85-year-old God­win Har­court, Whyte’s old­est child.

“From his songs, you could get so­lace, advice, things that would awaken your hope in God.”

God­win grew up in the lep­rosy colony with his father, al­though living in sep­a­rate quar­ters, and be­came a school teacher.

“Ev­ery school I was sent to, I made sure I formed a choir there so I could teach his songs,” he said.

Apart from church ser­vices, Whyte’s choir sang for var­i­ous dig­ni­taries from Bri­tain who vis­ited colo­nial Nige­ria.

Some say that the Queen of Eng­land also be­came aware of his mu­sic, and once re­quested his hymns to be played by the BBC on Christ­mas Day.

And, dur­ing the Nige­rian civil war when lead­ers of the Igbo eth­nic group at­tempted to se­cede and form a dif­fer­ent coun­try called Bi­afra, Whyte’s songs were pop­u­lar as a source of courage and hope.

Four years af­ter Whyte’s death, renowned Nige­rian play­wright, Ola Ro­timi, was com­mis­sioned to pro­duce a play for Nige­ria’s 21st In­de­pen­dence Day an­niver­sary on 1 Oc­to­ber, 1981.

He chose to base it on the life of Whyte and ap­proached Mr Achinivu, who of­fered him his the­sis for all the in­for­ma­tion he might need.

Mr Ro­timi then asked Mr Achinivu to pro­vide the mu­sic for the pro­duc­tion, ti­tled Hopes of the Living Dead.

The pro­fes­sor as­sem­bled a choir that worked hard to learn dozens of Whyte’s songs.

But, when they trav­elled from south-east Nige­ria to the then cap­i­tal city of La­gos to at­tend re­hearsals a few weeks ahead of the big day, a di­rec­tor at the Nige­rian min­istry of cul­ture was not im­pressed with Mr Ro­timi’s plans.

“He said that we couldn’t be pre­sent­ing lep­ers to the world on Nige­ria’s 21st in­de­pen­dence an­niver­sary,” Mr Achinivu said.

And the na­tional per­for­mance was can­celled.

Hopes of the Living Dead was even­tu­ally staged in some school the­atres.

“Ikoli Har­court Whyte had les­sons to teach Nige­ria,” Mr Achinivu said. “Sim­plic­ity, hu­mil­ity, ser­vice, courage.”

The man­age­ment of the Uzuakoli Lep­rosy Cen­tre hopes that the 40th an­niver­sary of Whyte’s death - tak­ing place on 25 and 26 Novem­ber at the Chapel of Hope where his grave lies - will re­vive in­ter­est in his life and work and at­tract more sup­port for their ef­fort to ed­u­cate the pub­lic on lep­rosy.

The dis­ease is now com­pletely cur­able, de­tect­ing symp­toms early pre­vents de­for­mity, and there is no longer any need to stig­ma­tise or iso­late suf­fer­ers.

“The man and the cen­tre seem to have been for­got­ten by peo­ple,” said Joshua Ok­para, a Methodist priest and project di­rec­tor of the cen­tre.

“It is a story that needs to rise again. We saw the need to re­vive peo­ple’s minds back to his con­tri­bu­tions. It is nec­es­sary for peo­ple to start look­ing to­wards his im­pact and also to help.”

He wrote with the stubs of his thumb and in­dex fin­ger, said 77-yearold Achinivu Kanu Achinivu, a pro­fes­sor of mu­sic who was a friend and pro­tégé of Whyte

Ikoli Har­court Whyte of­ten tried to con­ceal his de­formed fin­gers

Achinivu Kanu Achinivu oc­cu­pied the Har­court Whyte chair in cho­ral mu­sic at the Univer­sity of Port Har­court

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